11 years ago today I got on a plane and left Australia to study at a Chinese university in Beijing for a year (something I reflected on a year ago when I hit my 10 year Chinaversary). Now I’ve come full circle, back in Australia and studying again.
People keep asking me about re-entry, and whether I’m struggling to re-adjust. The problem is, I’m not “re-” anything much at all! I’m in a different city, meeting all new people, doing something new – I’m starting again, more than returning to something. There are a lot of new things in terms of routine. I had a few tough days this week, with anxiety welling up (along with some tears) as I wrestled with the newness. One of the biggest differences is that I am used to living a fairly set-apart life – solitude is my natural default, and going out and spending time with people takes a little organisation and effort. Now I am living in a very communal style – which is lovely, and the in-built community (not to mention meals!) helps a lot with getting to know people and feeling connected. But it does mean that I have to actually create alone time deliberately – this is very, very new to me! It is going to take time for me to find the balance. Yesterday I took a long walk and spent an hour sitting at the local park soaking up the atmosphere – the clean environment, the open space, the grass – and watching the people – exercising, playing with children and pets and just generally interacting with each other. It was a lovely time, so relaxing for me. I have to remember that OUTSIDE is always an option for me now, especially when I need alone time!
On the other hand, there are some very familiar things about the specific community I find myself in. I am attending a Bible college that calls itself a “missionary” Bible college. Throughout its 100 year history it has had a vision for and focus on cross-cultural work. This means it tends to attract people with that sort of focus. The community here is far more international that I expected, even with a friend telling me ahead of time. I have met people from Chile, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Taiwan, the UK and the USA – some immigrated to Australia, others came to study here. I have met TCKs who lived in Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands and Papua New Guinea. I’ve met people who have lived in Ethiopia, Ireland, Namibia, Singapore, Thailand, the UK and the US. (One lecturer even pastored a church half an hour from the Connecticut town I lived in as a teenager.) Five of the nine girls in my house are from, or have lived, abroad. And there are almost certainly other international connections I am as yet unaware of.
After 11 years as an expat, this blend of cultural influences feels very comfortable, very familiar. There are people I can speak Mandarin with – usually just bits and pieces interspersed in mostly English conversation, but even that is familiar. There are people who understand what it means to live cross-culturally. There are people who are interested in talking about other places, other languages, other cultures. It’s lovely.
It’s also lovely to start reconnecting to the culture of my passport country. On the weekend a went out with a new friend and housemate. We spent a few hours at the iconic Bondi beach – which was, of course, packed with people enjoying the sun, sand and sea on a hot Sunday afternoon. I very much enjoyed reading my book while lounging in the sun atop soft and fine sand, and also swimming in the lovely blue water and gentle swell. We left when our parking time expired and went down the coast to Coogee where we ate fish and chips overlooking the beach there. That all counts as a cultural experience, right?? Actually, I spent a lot of time observing – looking at how life is done here – just as I did at the local park. Looking at what people wear, what they eat, listening to what languages they speak, watching what activities they are engaged in. I think I’ll be doing a lot of that – observing and learning. Hopefully I’ll even come across some interesting things to share with you. For now, photos of the beautiful environment (sure to inflame envy among friends in the midst of northern hemisphere winter) will have to suffice.